Does anyone ever stop to consider where the bugs come from in Indiana Jones movies? I mean the ones that tend to hang out in secret passages in improbable numbers, crawling up trouser legs and dropping down necks. Every adventure film ever made generally has a sequence like this, but they never explain why any insect would choose to hang out in a secret passage rather than a jungle, or just a more insect friendly habitat. And why in such large numbers? What are they eating? Not that I would like to accuse Indiana Jones of being biologically inaccurate, but there are some significant unanswered questions here.
If you want to entice a large number of cockroaches to your concealed passageway or ancient temple I suggest bat guano. Hey, if it works for Gomantong cave, it will work for George Lucas. The 30 million horseshoe bats that live in Borneo’s infamous grotto have produced a sizable mound of poop that, as well as filling the cave with the heady stink of ammonia, is a home for the world’s largest population of cockroaches (also scorpions and some terrifying centipedes). They scuttle across the walkways, adding a crunchy note to each squelchy step, and cover the handrails in huge numbers. If you can suspend your disgust for five seconds, they are also rather beautiful; a rich caramel brown colour with golden splashes.
Gomantong, aside from having a world famous poo pile, is renowned as the source of birds’ nest soup. Because the cave is also home to the swiftlets that make the nests. Using a mixture of leaves and their own spit. Yum! Who on earth saw that and thought soup? Pound for pound swiftlet nests are worth far more than gold, as crazy people clamour to eat the weird gelatinous soup that they produce for the princely sum of RM70 (£14) a bowl in the hope that it will boost collagen production in the skin. Or something equally unlikely. Historically the value of the nests lead to the swiftlets being driven to the brink of extinction in the caves, so now the Sabah government strictly regulates all nest collection in three seasons per year.
Rosli, who continued to act as our guide for this stinky sojourn and thoughtfully provided face masks, enjoyed pointing out the more dense pockets of insects to us. He and I further bonded over a shared passion for David Attenborough, who has filmed in the caves a number of times. On one occasion he famously ascended the mountain of guano, and choked over his words to camera because the smell of ammonia was so strong.